Another season of endings is upon us. This is mostly evidenced by rows of green duffle bags and giddy soldiers and sailors whose work has finally come to a close. For the first time in months, they have nothing to do but eat, work out, and play cards with their buddies, as they wait for the bird to take them home. For most, though, their elation is tempered by the looming realities of the life that waits for them post deployment. Those who are married face the difficult challenge of reintegration, of re-membering relationships that have been through the crucible. As one higher ranking commander said to me just last week, “Deployment separation does one of two things to a marriage, solidifies it or destroys it.” Judging by the conversations that I have had over these months with a myriad of soldiers, sailors, and airmen, all who were fighting in some way for their marriages, he seems to be spot on.
As much as we are all happy to see the finish line of this experience, we all harbor some level of anxiety over what comes next. Many of the reservists don’t know what their next job will be while others of us are wondering where the Army will send us next. After a long season of simplicity-- work, sleep, and minimal complications-- we are all about to be turned upside down. Getting mentally prepared to come to Afghanistan took months. There were many goodbyes, and we all braced ourselves for those possibilities which could turn into reality during our deployment. Going home, though, is a totally different experience. One day, we look up, and realize the time has all elapsed. We stare this transition in the face, hardly prepared for what it might demand of us. As a chaplain, it is my job to try to help people prepare. We do a group training, and I will meet with every member of my unit to help facilitate more of a discussion about our departure. I hope it paves at least part of the way for a smooth passage home, but I also know that we will each have to do the hard work required for resettling.
As we have come closer to these endings, many of us have acknowledged that as excited as we are to move on with our lives, we are also experiencing a real sense of grief. Friendship here is both fast and intense. Friends are really all that we have to hold on to in a place like this. No matter how great skype and email with home may be, if the internet is actually working, only those who have shared this life event and have been present throughout the highs and lows really understand what this part of our lives has meant. These friendships, which have seen us through, and in some cases even ensured our survival, will change, too. There is always a bittersweetness with an ending, even if the next chapter holds significant promise.
With all the leaving going on and the fact that many of us still have work to continue, it’s easy to watch people go without batting an eye. Maybe this is also a bit of self-preservation. Every once in a while, I try to make space to feel the loss which accompanies the departure of a friend. Yesterday, knowing that a few of my comrades would be flying out right after lunch, I took my diet coke and held my own “vigil” at one of the picnic tables, a good location for watching the planes leave the airfield. I made it just in time to see their bird take off and make the ascent toward the mountains. I watched with tears in my eyes. For many on that plane, that day was the last one they would ever ever spend in this small corner of the world. While most are fine, in fact thrilled, that they will never have to come back here, I can’t help but feel overcome by this finitude.
Yet, are there really ever true endings. I will see many of the people I have known in Afghanistan once I am back in Texas. It won’t be the same. The food will definitely be better, and for some of us, our encounters will be less frequent. But, when they do happen, something of Afghanistan will be present with us. In glimpses, we will revisit this distant chapter of our lives. We will be reminded that shared memory is a gift that will continue to give again and again.